Submitted by Kelso Sturgeon on Wednesday, June 14, 2017 at 6:44 AM
The Pitt Panthers were as interesting as any team in college football last year. On a good day they could be the only team to beat eventual national champion Clemson. Or to knock off Penn State, a game that ultimately cost the Nittany Lions a Playoff berth. On other days...well, they could lose to Northwestern in a bowl game and end up 8-5. What does 2017 hold for Pitt football?
A lot of change is where it starts. Third-year head coach Pat Narduzzi must replace quarterback Nathan Peterman, running back James Connor and an elite pass-rushing defensive end in Ejaun Price. In a balanced ACC Coastal Division losing those kinds of playmakers is enough to turn up the pessimism in Las Vegas. The market has responded, with Pitt’s Over/Under win prop being a meager 6.5, lower than six other conference schools.
If you want to believe in the Panthers, the focal point question is this—how quickly can they get underclassmen contributing? Pitt traditionally has lagged behind other ACC Coastal rivals—notably North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami in recruiting, to say nothing of the powers on the opposite side of the conference (Clemson and Florida State). But Narduzzi has changed that.
The last two Pitt recruiting classes—the only two under this head coach—have at least been on a par with the program’s main divisional rivals. Narduzzi has brought needed stability to a program that has gone through four head coaches and two interim bosses over the last seven years. At the close of spring practice, only five sophomores were penciled into the starting lineup. We’ll see how quickly that changes if the veterans don’t play well in early tests against Penn State and Oklahoma State.
Pitt’s secondary in particular needs to improve drastically. The defense ranked 106th nationally last year, primarily because of a pass defense that was even worse. The problem was specifically on the corners. Defense is Narduzzi’s pride and joy—he made his reputation as Mark Dantonio’s coordinator in Michigan State and those teams were marked by strong and physical man-for-man coverage on the edges.
The Panthers have not had the talent to play Narduzzi-ball effectively yet on defense. To that end, a player to watch is one of the sophomore starters, corner Dane Jackson. He’ll be tested by fire when the team goes to Penn State on September 9.
Another big key to Pitt’s success will be the assimilation of transfer quarterback Max Browne. You may recognize Browne as the quarterback who lost his job to Sam Darnold at USC. There’s no shame in not being as good as Darnold, a Heisman frontrunner this fall. If Browne simply plays steady football and provides some senior leadership, Pitt will be much the better.
Normally when looking at a team’s Over/Under, you try and separate the sure wins and the sure losses right off the bat and narrow it down to the handful of games that will swing the bet. In the ACC Coastal that’s a little tougher where it seems nothing is for certain. It’s safe to bet that Pitt will start 1-1—they’ll beat Youngstown State and lose at Penn State. After that, it’s all up to the kids to come together fast enough to win six more and go Over.